Winston-Salem welcomes Yamas Mediterranean Street Food
By: Jennifer Zeleski
Everyone wants to visit a place where they feel accepted, and when a crew says “Yamas!” in elation as you walk through the restaurant’s front door, it’s hard not to feel embraced. That warm welcome meaning “cheers to good health,” can be found at the recently-opened Yamas Mediterranean Street Food, located at 624 W. 4th St. in Winston-Salem.
The Instagram-worthy snapshots of fresh, healthy-looking bowls packed with greens and grains are what drew me into the hype, especially with the rise of health-focused, vegan and vegetarian-friendly options popping up in downtown Winston-Salem, such as Village Juice Company and Canteen Market & Bistro.
After being a few workouts into the realization that New Year’s resolutions are long gone and summer is on the horizon, it was time to give Yamas a shot.
The interior of the restaurant was larger than expected, with a full-size dining room separate from the ordering line, where customers wind through the dozens of topping options and potential combinations.
The grab-and-go fridge offered imported feta cheese next to bottled kombucha and house-made rice pudding. And the sunlight lit up the front of the counter, where a variety of baked goods were on display in a glass case, enough to make you reconsider that salad in exchange for baklava bites or house-made cookies.
With dessert thoughts aside, I ordered a half grain and half salad bowl for lunch, with a mix of the organic spring mix, arugula, spinach and romaine, topped with the lemon basmati rice. I hoped for a light citrus flavor that would combine well with the chicken souvlaki and other various toppings.
When it comes to bowls, if you would rather skip the lettuce altogether, the grain bowl is the way to go, which also offers ancient freekeh wheat and Mediterranean lentils as other base options. If you’re thinking more carb-free or gluten-free, you’re smart enough to figure it out— just skip the grains (and the grain-focused toppings later on) with a salad bowl.
My boyfriend tagged along and skipped the bowl concept entirely, instead opting for the traditional gyro sandwich on pita; nothing added or removed. (Beware: extra toppings on the pre-made recipes require an upcharge).
The customization hardly scratches the surface when choosing the base, and I quickly found myself doing flavor combinations in my head and wondering, how much healthy food is too much healthy food? It didn’t matter.
I was given the option to add up to three dips or spreads, of which I chose tahini hummus and the harissa yogurt. Harissa is a spicy paste made from peppers, paprika and olive oil, and tends to add that bite of spiciness you’re looking for in Mediterranean food that is sometimes elusive. Mixing it with yogurt sounded like a great way to tone down the spice and give the bowl a bit of creaminess.
My chosen protein was the chicken souvlaki, one of my usual go-tos, with added falafel and dolmades on the side. Dolmades are rice-stuffed grape leaves, often some of the most traditional items you’ll find when visiting a Mediterranean restaurant or local Greek festival, and falafel is ground and seasoned chickpeas, deep-fried. Both are vegan and gluten-free options that you would love even as a carnivore. But, the pomegranate braised lamb and fig and pistachio chicken salad also sounded promising if that’s more your speed.
The toppings, that’s where this got interesting. Marinated chickpeas. Tomato and cucumber salad. Sumac pickled onions. Mandarin cranberry couscous. Red cabbage slaw. And feta cheese, of course. That was just under half of the options, but each seemed enticing in their own way. Lastly, I chose the entire bowl to be drizzled with a lemon and lime tahini sauce.
Peyton’s traditional gyro sandwich came with a large pita covered with tzatziki cucumber sauce, gyro meat (yes, you can see the vertical rotisserie where it’s sliced on the back kitchen line), seasoned fries, and marinated grape tomatoes.
Just looking at my bowl, I knew every bite was going to be different. I had to make a choice: should I toss it all and hope for the best, or keep everything delegated to a certain section, hoping to get the best of every topping? It ended up a mix of both, and I couldn’t say it was for the better. Within the first few bites, it was easy to tell that the lettuce was fresh and the rice was a great texture. The chicken was well-seasoned and not tough or dry but wasn’t quite hot enough for it to justify not just being served cold. The toppings are where the bowl got its character, and each was impressive in its own way.
The sumac pickled onions and tomatocucumber salad added the vinegar and acidity, the marinated chickpeas added a little more cumin-like spice, and the feta cheese made it feel a bit more like a Greek salad. My favorites were easily the Mandarin cranberry couscous, which was tender in texture and could have easily been my favorite grain had I not ordered the basmati rice, and the red cabbage slaw was just delicious. It had crunch and flavor, and I wished I had a whole half of my bowl devoted to it.
Despite all of these flavors being great individually, the drawbacks were the sauce, dips and spreads. Not only did they overpower everything else in the bowl, but they also didn’t have a striking or memorable flavor that made you want to drench your lettuce or grains in them. If I had known this would have been my biggest regret, I definitely would have held off or asked for much less than a heavy drizzle over the entire bowl (no matter how photogenic it is).
On Peyton’s side of the table, the gyro pita was good, but not the best. The pita was not warm and was fairly dense, which he found to be off-putting. The tzatziki was necessary to ensure the sandwich wasn’t too dry with the thicker pita but had just the right amount of spice and creaminess. The meat was tender and had a good level of saltiness to pair with herb-based seasoned fries and marinated cherry tomatoes, which were refreshing bursts of flavor. The falafel connoisseur himself was satisfied with the crunch, but each one lacked the freshly-fried warmth and oil that makes falafel so addicting. The dolmades, however, were better. The grape leaves were tender, and the fillings were well-balanced with all of the crave-worthy flavors: garlic, oregano, salt and more.
Overall, I was pleased with the efficiency and affordability that Yamas had to offer, but maybe not quite as a substitute for other local Mediterranean favorites. I truly believe there is so much potential to make the flavors and options even more impressive that I wouldn’t count out Yamas as a great addition to your healthy local fare.
But making the meal as memorable as it can be comes down to a focus on spices and seasonings being well-balanced, less focus on sauces and spreads (which overpower those other great flavors), desired temperatures of certain items, and freshness in every aspect. Also, the combination of flavors comes down to knowing what you want and how it all blends together on your bowl or sandwich, so remember — less might be more when you’re adding all of your favorites.
Do yourself a favor, be welcomed into Yamas with a personal cheer, and leave with two cookies, one in each hand. You’ll thank yourself later, even if it doesn’t fit into your beach-body diet.
Jennifer Zeleski is a senior Communication major at High Point University, who is always eager to cook, eat and listen. Her many food adventures can be followed on Instagram @jayz_eats.